Victories Never Last

Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague

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Pub Date 05 May 2022 | Archive Date 01 May 2022

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A timely and nuanced book that sets the author’s experience as a nursing home volunteer during the pandemic alongside the wisdom of great thinkers who confronted their own plagues.

In any time of disruption or grief, many of us seek guidance in the work of great writers who endured similar circumstances. During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, historian and biographer Robert Zaretsky did the same while also working as a volunteer in a nursing home in south Texas. In Victories Never Last Zaretsky weaves his reflections on the pandemic siege of his nursing home with the testimony of six writers on their own times of plague: Thucydides, Marcus Aurelius, Michel de Montaigne, Daniel Defoe, Mary Shelley, and Albert Camus, whose novel The Plague provides the title of this book.
Zaretsky delves into these writers to uncover lessons that can provide deeper insight into our pandemic era. At the same time, he goes beyond the literature to invoke his own experience of the tragedy that enveloped his Texas nursing home, one which first took the form of chronic loneliness and then, inevitably, the deaths of many residents whom we come to know through Zaretsky’s stories. In doing so, Zaretsky shows the power of great literature to connect directly to one’s own life in a different moment and time.
For all of us still struggling to comprehend this pandemic and its toll, Zaretsky serves as a thoughtful and down-to-earth guide to the many ways we can come to know and make peace with human suffering.
A timely and nuanced book that sets the author’s experience as a nursing home volunteer during the pandemic alongside the wisdom of great thinkers who confronted their own plagues.

In any time of...

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A very well researched, poignant piece. I was touched by the author's experiences in our current crisis but his examination of Marcus Aurelius' work was particularly interesting to me.

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March 2020 the world changed. Robert Zaretsky’s university went to online classes. He volunteered at a nursing home, delivering and feeding meals to the elderly. For insight and clarity, Robert Zaretsky turned to writers who had written about the plagues they had lived through.

Victories Never Last looks to the past to understand our present. Pandemics have riddled human history; the result of the growth of cities and trade which fostered the spread of disease. The numbers of lives claimed by plagues is startling–until we consider that one of of four Americans have contracted Covid-19, and without the medical advancements and health care we enjoy, for our ancestors that meant one out of four died.

Fear and disorder were byproducts of disease, breaking down social, political, and religious order. Thucydides described the Athenian plague as stripping “society to its bones, baring a world of naked self-interest and preservation” Zaretsky shares.

Marcus Aurelius responded by writing his Meditations, his personal journal to aid his adherence to his Stoic philosophy.

Montaigne was still mayor of Bordeaux when the Bubonic Plague struck, taking nearly half the population. Retiring to a life of contemplation to write his essays, he concluded that “It is not what will be or what has been that counts, but our being at this moment that we should embrace.”

In his A Journal of the Plague Year, Daniel Defoe chronicled the Great Plague in 1665 London.

Albert Camus responded to the ‘brown plague’ of the Nazis; he noted that the plague in his novel has both “a social and metaphysical sense.”

Zaretsky compares Mary Wollstonecraft’s’ novel of plague The Last Man and Camus’ last, unfinished novel The First Man.

Throughout the book, Zaretsky relates his experiences in the nursing home and his own struggles with mortality. We are all frail and flawed human beings, he ends, all both the first and last of women and men.

Over these last years, many have turned to the past to help understand the present. These histories sadly show that the divisiveness which has upended our social welfare under Covid-19 is not new. These writers offer philosophies that can help us cope with our awareness of mortality.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.

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